“BEFORE/AFTER” documents the drastic changes, both physical and psychological, which took place during the renovation of Beijing’s Fangjia Hutong in the months between April and September 2017. In 2019, OPEN Architecture was invited to participate in “Unknown City: China Contemporary Architecture and Image Exhibition”, the opening exhibition of the Pingshan Art Museum, with their work “BEFORE/AFTER”.
After the renovation, the diverse storefronts that used to record the joyful moments of life were removed and replaced with rows of uniform building façades. The Hutongs that used to hold numerous cafes, restaurants, bars, and featured shops suddenly lost its own identity.
OPEN Architecture’s “BEFORE/AFTER” attempts to use image comparisons to encourage people’s reflection on a series of critical urban issues—of freedom and authority, progress and nostalgia, inclusivity and exclusivity, collectivity and individuality, and ultimately, the future of our cities. Through this study, OPEN Architecture hopes to encourage discussions around the definition of the ideal urban living and urban fabric.
Li Hu, the founding partner of OPEN Architecture, is also an architect who has worked in Fangjia Hutong for many years. After witnessing the radical changes that have given Fangjia Hutong a makeover, Li Hu argues that most renovation works done on Fangjia Hutong, focused on beautifying the existing facades, based on some assumptions about historic characters of Hutong.
Li Hu points out that, when it comes to heritage restoration and urban planning, we have always been paying too much attention to the “looks” instead of the “stories” the buildings tend to carry throughout time. Our cities are never just a beautifully decorated postcard, cities are living and full of our life stories.
For example, if you pass through the freshly renovated building skin along both sides of the Hutong, and enter from the back, where real stories happen, you will realize that old messy life dramas are still on show within the complex. The shiny tiling on the exterior face of the building does not have anything to do with what’s really happening in the back. In fact, everyday, the residents of Hutong have to walk all the way to the streets to access public washrooms, having to go through life with low dignity.
The question that remains is: are we just creating nice-looking buildings in the context, or are we really designing for people who have to live and use the structures everyday? Actually, design should be human-centered instead of policy-driven; because eventually, we should be designing a way of living, not a way of "looking".